Workflows are about optimizing your personal process
Developing workflows have the advantage of allowing you to optimize your work process. This will allow you to become more efficient in the future. The disadvantage then is that you need to invest the time now. And workflows take some time to develop. While personal workflows are inherently personal, there are lessons to be learned from other people’s workflows. That’s why I like podcasts like Mac Power Users which take the time to take you through workflows of uber-nerds.
The origins of my writing workflow
I write quite a lot. Professionally, I write quite a lot of reports and audit work papers. I wrote a lot of proposals as well, in the past when I was working as a consultant. My professional writing has to be concise and to the point. It needs to be as efficient as possible in conveying a message as my target audience, the audit committee, has a limited time to listen to me and read our work. Personally, I’m a blogger. As a blogger, I want to be as efficient and effective in communicating the messages I want to bring as well, out of respect for my audience.
Why do I describe my workflow?
It took a while to finetune my writing workflow. I’ve been testing a lot of applications on different devices and I’ve managed to find a couple of solutions to the challenges of writing as focused as possible. Additionally, it forces me to formally close the testing phase which saw me making a lot of tool changes and spend a lot of time and money getting and testing apps. By describing my current set-up I aim to answer the question “Do I need another tool or have a reached a maturity in my set-up.” The answer actually surprised me.
Steps in my workflow
My workflow consists of five discrete steps which each have a reason and a set of tools to support the execution. I don’t always follow these steps, but I noted that the quality of my writing and the level of synthesis without losing content is more optimal if I apply each of the steps.
Stap 1 – Idea capture
I often get glimpses of ideas. When creativity strikes, I try to capture it. I always carry around a small notebook and a pen. I just write down what I think about and add as much or as little detail as I think I need. It allows me to put ideas out of my head, where they are likely to get lost.
Step 2 – Mindmapping the article
When I have the time to write, on the train, during the weekend, at night, I set down with one of my tools, select an idea and start brainstorming the content of the article the idea for which I captured in my notebook. I don’t always do this, but I find that article writing takes more time if I don’t, because mindmapping my content generation around an idea gives me the freedom to go really broad in my ideas, without the linear requirements imposed by word processors or outlining tools. I export the mindmap in OPML where possible, which allows me to transfer the structure to my outlining tool.
Step 3 – Outlining the article
Once I’ve developed the ideas and the basic structure in the mindmap, I export through OPML to my outlining tool. The outlining tool brings the unstructured idea generation to a structured environment and allows me to assess the narrative in the structure. Am I making all the points I want to make … and does the story make sense? Using an outlining tool to review these aspects really makes sense for me. Knowing this tool and this process is available also allows me to go all out in the mindmapping. I don’t need to hold back as I know I will be outlining anyway. Outlining is pruning of the content. And I find myself often noting down items I came up with during the mindmapping as possible future ideas for articles. However, if they don’t make sense during the outlining phase, they get pruned, relentlessly. At the end, I export the outline as a txt file to my writing tool of choice.
Step 4 – Writing the article
Given the preparatory work that I’ve already done, this step should be easy. But it isn’t. Even with the bones of the article skeleton in place and optimized, and all the ideas as cute little ducks in a row, this is still a lot of hard work. When narrative structure is in place, you still need to tell the story. Hans and Grethel would be a very short story if only the outline mattered. Fleshing out the bones is a lot of hard work, and still the most work of all the steps. Once the text is done, I go back and format it using Markdown. It’s not a complex language and it allows me to edit on multiple platforms.
Step 5 – Article quality control
After having written and formatted the article, I go back one more time before I post it on the blog. However, I usually wait a while, ideally a day, but often more likely an hour or two, before I go back and reread it for essential issues, such as spelling and use of the correct words and turns of phrases. I read it from two perspectives. First, I need to know the article makes sense. Second, I look for optimization and correct links.
Step 6 – Posting the article to the blog
For this, I use the tools SquareSpace gives me. I post in Markdown which is then by Squarespace transferred to clean html for the blog. Basically, I just copy-paste the markdown in the squarespace editor, although on occasion I will use SquareSpace’s tools available on iPad and iPhone.
Tools, apps and file formats
For each of the steps described above, I use a specific set of tools which depend on the device I’m on. I intermittently use a Mac (home and portable), and iPad or an iPhone (IOS device, also when travelling) or Windows PC (work). The available tools allow me to do most of my work on each of these platforms, with limited to no hand-off issues if I switch devices. Pulling it all together are two folders on my dropbox, one containing my mindmaps, the other containing Markdown saved as txt.
Answering the question
I honestly dare not go back into my app store archive and check which I have or haven’t purchased. What I know is that when I ‘discover’ yet another app which I want to look at, more often than not it’s the “INSTALL” dialog box that appears instead of the price button. A good indication I purchased a predecessor of the current incarnation of that tool somewhere in the past.
The thing is, I probably don’t need them. Most of the most relevant tools I have and use are nvAlt (free, but pay Brett Terpstra some money, because this is a txt editing powerhouse) and Plaintext (free, but you can pay €1.59 to have the banners removed). Notesy is an alternative, and you need iThoughts as a mindmapping tool on your IOS device, but I really don’t need another writing tool.